Assessing the freshmen
It may still be early in the season, but it’s a good time to look at the impact the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s crop of freshmen has made on the teams. There may be little question as to whom the dominant rookie has been so far this season, but as a team, it’s a little trickier.
Reporters and fans could debate the merits of one player in a team’s system until they all run out of air, but that still leaves us without a consensus on the team with the biggest freshman impact.
So call this The Freshman Project. Using my limited mathematical skills, I drew up a crude equation using some statistics to come up with what I call the "Milewski index," a number to judge the effectiveness of a player.
Now, please don’t take this as a scientific study or anything even closely resembling one. This is just a purely quantitative estimate of the player’s performance and value to his team so far.
The Milewski index is derived using a player’s points-per-game average and scoring rank on his team. This only counts players who have appeared this season. The points-per-game average is multiplied by 25 minus the player’s scoring rank. Or, if you’re into formulae: ppg * (25 – scoring rank). In other words, the higher index, the more impact on the team and more scoring production. A team’s index is compiled by taking the mean of the freshmen players’ indices.
For the purpose of this study, goaltenders were eliminated. Some teams have freshman goaltenders and some don’t: It would be just too tough to account for them on some teams and not on others.
Some results are predictable, and some aren’t.
The predictable: Wisconsin’s Dany Heatley is far and away the leading freshman in the WCHA. His index is 34.5, more than the total on four league teams: Minnesota State-Mankato; Michigan Tech; Alaska-Anchorage; and Minnesota.
It seems the coaches knew something when they named him the preseason favorite for rookie of the year. Minnesota coach Don Lucia, whose team played Heatley’s Badgers last weekend, seemed impressed.
"Heatley’s just in another level than everybody else," Lucia said. "You might as well mail in the votes now for rookie of the year in our league."
The unpredictable: With Heatley, Brad Winchester and Brian Fahey, the Badgers’ index isn’t tops in the league. That honor goes to Colorado College, which has an average index of 10.66, compared to Wisconsin’s 9.735. The reason? The Tigers have four players who have all scored a point, giving them something more than 0 to contribute to the average. Wisconsin has two freshmen who have played but not scored, bringing down the average.
Oh yeah, it doesn’t hurt that Noah Clarke scored a 26.64 from 10 points in nine games, ranking him tied for first on his team.
The list, in reverse order, of teams based on their average index follows:
10. Michigan Tech (1.97): The Huskies have four freshmen who have played, but they have combined for four points in a total of 33 games. Jeff Keiver leads the group with two points and a 3.96 index.
9. Alaska-Anchorage (2.642): The thing that brought Anchorage down in the rankings is that they just have so many freshmen who have played but not put many numbers on the board. Dan Gilkerson has a 6.6 index to lead the Seawolves, but four of the team’s nine freshmen are at 1.2 or below.
8. Minnesota State-Mankato (2.856): The Huskies’ effect is also what kept the Mavericks’ average index low. Five freshmen, five points. Two players with no points. Not good for an average. In the team’s six games, a freshman has not scored a goal. Don Brose certainly has a veteran team in Mankato, though, which also gives a bit of the reasoning for the low numbers.
"Unless you’re an extremely weak program where freshmen are going to stand out, typically freshmen are going to come in and they have some learning to do," Brose said. "It’s rare that freshmen will step in in established programs that are programs in the upper half of the league and make an impact. They’ll contribute, but they won’t make an impact." 7. Minnesota (5.597): This might be another surprise to some. The Gophers have Shawn Roed and Jeff Taffe, who each has an index of 10.0 with five points in 10 games, but that’s really been it as far as freshman production.
Lucia said Roed, who played for the U.S. National Junior Team Development Program and the Twin Cities Vulcans of the United States Hockey League, has stood out over Taffe thus far.
"I think you see the difference between someone that’s coming right out of high school vs. someone that’s played junior hockey," he said. "Actually, Shawn has probably been the better of the two so far, and I think the experience from playing in Ann Arbor as a junior and with the Vulcans as a senior shows the difference."
6. Minnesota-Duluth (6.175): The Bulldogs have only four freshmen who have seen playing time this season, with Jon Francisco standing out as the most impressive. He has five points (all assists) and ranks second on the team. His 19.09 index is fourth in the league.
"He’s a very skillful player who you don’t need to carry the load," UMD coach Mike Sertich said, referring to his team’s veteran players. "There’s no pressure on him like there is in some programs when you bring in a lot of freshmen to play right away. He’s a good athlete. He’s a good hockey player."
5. Denver (7.058): Kevin Doell has a 15.6 rating, Greg Barber a 14.0 index and J.J. Hartmann an 8.5 mark. But that is offset by Jordan Bianchin’s 2.25, Aaron MacKenzie’s 2.0 and Jason Grahame’s 0.0. It’s still not a bad group, though, especially if Doell and Barber can keep up the pace and stay in the top five in scoring.
4. St. Cloud State (7.512): By these numbers, the Huskies have the second-ranked freshman in Ryan Malone. He has 12 points in 10 games and ranks second on the team. That’s a 27.6 index.
"He’s got the ability to carry the puck and make plays," North Dakota coach Dean Blais said. "He’s big and strong and knows the game. He’s got a lot of hockey sense. I think he’s a future NHL prospect just because of his size and strength. He’s not real quick, but he’s a good all-around player."
3. North Dakota (7.936): Here’s where, by my own admission, these numbers may not work. The Sioux have three of the top 11 players in the index — Ryan Hale (17.2, fifth), Travis Roche (15.0, seventh) and Ryan Bayda (10.54, 11th).
"At times, they’ve been our best players," Blais said of his team’s freshmen. "Chris Leinweber (a defenseman, 5.32 index) and Travis Roche, the first six games were our top two defensemen. They’re going to have their ups and downs, but we’re certainly happy with all the freshmen forwards. We’re playing eight freshmen because we lost eight seniors and they’ve done real well."
2. Wisconsin (9.735): The Badgers have everyone’s choice as top freshman in Heatley — "Heatley is probably the best I’ve seen in a long time in our league," Sertich said — but don’t forget about Brad Winchester (10.8, tie-ninth) and Brian Fahey (10.8, tie-ninth).
"I was really impressed with Winchester, Heatley and Fahey for Wisconsin. All three of those are going to be very good players," Lucia said.
1. Colorado College (10.66): The Tigers only have one player in the top 10, but Clarke, combined with a productive Tom Preissing and others, is enough to put them on top of the league under these ratings.
On the WCHA’s annual coaches’ teleconference, Colorado College coach Scott Owens addressed a perceived lack of leadership in scoring on his team this season.
"I don’t know if we’re going to be able to score quite as much as they did last year, but we’re hoping it’s going to be done a little bit by committee," he said.
Let’s take a look at the Tigers’ series with Michigan Tech last weekend. They swept the Tigers, 9-1 and 6-3. Yes, not a shock against Tech at home. But the interesting statistic, and the thing Owens had to be thrilled with, was that 15 players had at least one point in the series, including 14 Tigers in Friday’s game. You want "by committee?" That’s "by committee."
Yes, Brian Swanson and Darren Clark are gone, but this group of players seems to be carrying on quite nicely.
The big three thus far has been Toby Petersen (2-8–10, 1.25 points per game), K.J. Voorhees (7-3–10, 1.11 ppg) and Clarke (4-6-10, 1.11 ppg). But the key component appears to have been, like on so many other teams, the non-marquee players.
Mark Cullen has tossed in nine points; Justin Morrison, eight; Jesse Heerema and Paul Manning, seven each. If that kind of output can continue, the Tigers will be right near the top as the league schedule progresses.
CC makes its first visit to Denver’s Magness Arena on Saturday, following a Friday game at the World Arena in Colorado Springs. Remember the last time these teams met? Denver, in the midst of one of the greatest late-season runs in recent memory, erased a 2-0 first-period deficit and downed the Tigers 3-2 in overtime to advance to the WCHA Final Five championship game.
There have been some classics in this series. Here’s hoping for a couple more this weekend.
Change for the better in Duluth
It’s way too early to call Minnesota-Duluth’s performance this season a 180 from last year, but, as Sertich put it, "It’s a little bit different than last year for these kids."
And how. Through six games, the Bulldogs have matched last season’s league win total (four) and have one more league road victory than last year (three).
This isn’t coming against fluff teams, either. UMD split at Wisconsin (that’s still Wisconsin’s only loss of the season), took one of two at home against Colorado College and, most recently, went on the road to sweep St. Cloud State.
Not by much, but a win is a win. The Bulldogs won 3-2 in overtime on Friday and 4-3 on Saturday. Winning one-goal games. Now that’s a novel concept for Sertich’s team.
"We’re winning one-goal games instead of losing them. Last year, we were losing them," Sertich said. "Most of the time in one-goal games, there’s a lot of luck involved. We just happen to be in the right places at the right times, I guess."
Last season, the Bulldogs were 2-9 in games decided by one goal. Three of the team’s last four games were one-goal losses.
Some things don’t change, though. UMD is 4-2 but has led for just over 100 of the 364 minutes the team has played this season.
There appears to be a new attitude in Duluth, though — one based on winning.
"They set the bar, now we’re holding them accountable to the bar," Sertich said. "Every time they raise the bar, that’s something they’re going to have to be responsible for."
They’ll look to put the bar up again this weekend in a series at Minnesota. The Gophers are coming off a pair of heart-wrenching losses to Wisconsin. Possibly the worst thing about the weekend was that the team played its heart out against one of the best teams in the nation right now, was extremely close to getting at least a point, and came away with nothing.
"We’re good enough to play with everybody but we’re still not at the level with the elite teams across the country," Lucia said.
You can’t call this weekend a breather for the Gophers, but compared with the rest of the schedule, it’s close. This is the first time Minnesota plays a team not ranked in the top 10 in the country.
Birth of a rivalry?
Remember that WCHA first-round playoff series between Minnesota State-Mankato and North Dakota last season?
North Dakota probably does.
The Sioux got a rude awakening from the team given the No. 10 spot in the playoffs, a 3-2 overtime loss on Friday night and a dogfight the next night. North Dakota escaped — with an emphatic 10-0 win in the deciding game on Sunday — but knows never to take Mankato lightly.
The teams meet in Engelstad Arena again this weekend.
"Three years in a row they’ve been on a waiting list and we’ve won the league three years in a row so they’ve been our opponent (in the first round)," Blais said. "So we know Mankato real well. Actually, they have the same team that they had last year. We’re going to have our hands full." North Dakota holds an 8-1 record over the Mavericks, but after last season’s playoffs, you just never know.
"If you play them nine times, you’re going to get whomped once, you might pick one off once and North Dakota’s going to win the good share of them," Brose said. "That’s what happened to us. We got blown out in the third game (of the playoffs), but otherwise we played them tough, and I think as tough as anybody has.
"We won in overtime on Friday and we actually played better in a 3-2 loss on Saturday. I thought we had them on the run, I thought that we were playing extremely well, we had breakaways, uneven rushes. I thought we played a lot better on Saturday, but we lost. That’s the kind of performance that we need to have."
Thumbs of the week
Up to Eric Pateman. The Minnesota State-Mankato goaltender notched his fourth career shutout Saturday to tie him for the Mavericks’ all-time lead. He has a 1.98 goals against average and a .932 save percentage this season, good for second in the league in both categories.
Down to keeping the whistle in the pocket in the last minute. Wisconsin’s Matt Murray got away with what appeared to be interference in the right corner with 10 seconds left on Friday against Minnesota, leading to Dustin Kuk’s game-winning goal with seven seconds on the clock. Probably would have been called if time wasn’t running out. Nice play, though.
Up to Jeff Scissons. The Minnesota-Duluth forward scored three points last weekend in the Bulldogs’ sweep of St. Cloud State to up his career point total to 100. He is the 43rd player to do so for the Bulldogs.
Down to privacy rules in the USCHO poll. I want to know who voted for Minnesota State-Mankato. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I just want to know who it was.
Around the league
Alaska-Anchorage: The Seawolves get a chance to regroup and rest after their losses to North Dakota last weekend. Coach Dean Talafous’ team has two straight bye weeks before its meetings with Minnesota on Dec. 3 and 4.
Because of the Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament at Sullivan Arena over Thanksgiving weekend, the Seawolves have always been on the road for the holiday. Not this year, though. It’s the first time they’ll be at home for Thanksgiving since the team’s inaugural 1979-80 season.
Michigan Tech: A loss on Friday to Upper Peninsula rival Northern Michigan would not only send the Huskies further into despair, it would send them further into the history books. Tech (0-10) has opened the season with 10 consecutive losses only once (1940-41) and has never lost 11 games to open a season.
Wisconsin: Here’s another interesting fact about Heatley. He has eight goals through his first 10 games. His father, Murray, who also played at Wisconsin, had eight goals through his first 10 games. Crazy.
Murray Heatley ended up with 75 goals in 86 games for the Badgers over three years. Will Dany Heatley last that long in Madison? To be continued…